Secrecy of defense motion to delay going to prison protested by reporter
by Mike Donoghue
Vermont News First
BURLINGTON — An Addison County woman convicted in 2018 for lying to improperly obtain nearly $140,000 from federal programs has pleaded guilty to a new felony charge of bank fraud after she lied multiple times to get more money unlawfully under the Payroll Protection Program.
Jennifer L. Stocker, 46, of New Haven struck a written deal with federal prosecutors that they will recommend 25 months in federal prison for her lying to obtain the two PPP loans and for violating the terms of probation imposed when she got a non-prison sentence in the 2018 case.
However it appeared at the hearing in U.S. District Court on Friday afternoon Stocker might be getting cold feet about serving prison time.
Assistant Federal Defender Sara M. Puls filed a last-minute motion initially under seal seeking a possible delay in Stocker going to prison. Puls said Stocker was seeking continued release and wrote there are now concerns about her client’s mental health treatment, her children and past unspecified “relational abuse history.”
Vermont News First filed a written objecting to the defense motion being excluded from public review, noting the three items would be discussed in open court during the hearing that afternoon and had been included in past documents filed with the court. The objection to the sealing also noted Stocker has had at least 8 different court hearings scheduled since Jan. 4 and it was time to proceed in public.
As the hearing began, Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford said there always is always a community interest in court sentencings. He also noted he was concerned the entire defense motion was being excluded from the public. The judge acknowledged there might be an argument that some sensitive information about her 5 children could be blacked out.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Ophardt agreed the Constitution and case law support public access to courts and documents. He said a full sealing was improper and would leave it to the judge to determine what lines could be blacked out.
Crawford ordered the defense motion be re-submitted with redactions in two paragraphs, however the new version remained unposted on the court website by the close of business.
In the end, even with the admissions in the two criminal cases, Crawford agreed not to send Stocker to prison pending the sentencing. He said Stocker could remain free on both criminal cases pending preparation of a pre-sentence report by the U.S. Probation Office. He set the sentencing for March 8, 2024.
During the hearing Stocker pleaded guilty to the new bank fraud charge and also admitted to violating the terms of her probation in the earlier case.
Stocker also has agreed to pay $86,873 in restitution to the Small Business Administration to cover the money and interest from the two PPP loans she received.
She submitted loan forgiveness applications for both PPP loans and both were wiped out, along with interest, court records show.
Ophradt outlined in court the highlights of the bank fraud before she entered her guilty plea. He said Stocker lied to obtain $59,395 for one loan in 2020 and lied to obtain $26,663 in another loan in 2021 under the PPP, a COVID relief effort. She lied on her application by saying she was not on probation nor had been convicted of a felony in the previous five years, he said.
In reality, Stocker fully knew she was on federal probation for making false statements to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the 2018 case, Ophardt said. She also was under a federal court order to make $139,397 in restitution in that prosecution, commit no new crimes and to refrain from opening new credit lines without approval of her probation officer.
Stocker violated the terms of her federal probation by failing to follow conditions imposed by Crawford on Nov. 2, 2018 in court. The violations are:
— Failing to pay at least 10 percent of her gross monthly income to the restitution fund between February 2022 and December 2022;
— Failing to notify probation when Stocker opened auto loans on Jan. 25, 2021 and July 26, 2022 when she knew all new lines of credit had to be reported to her probation officer.
— Committing a new felony crime – bank fraud — by making false statements in April 2020, May 2020 and February 2021 in the new PPP cases.
Stocker made the false statements about her criminal record to the Vermont Federal Credit Union in an effort to help influence her PPP applications, Ophradt said.
Stocker had maintained she was not on probation nor had been convicted of a felony in the previous 5 years when she knew she had pleaded guilty on July 2, 2018 for knowingly making false and fraudulent statements for another federal assistance program, court records note.
She made false statements about being married when dealing with both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Stocker was married in December 2007 and proceeded to submit numerous applications for various government benefits in which she knowingly concealed that she was married, court records show.
Those false statements spanned from April 2010 to December 2015, court records show.
Stocker also forged a supervisor’s signature on at least one form and submitted it to a Vermont agency that administered benefits — purportedly to verify her employment had ended when she was actually on maternity leave, court records noted in October 2018.
Judge Crawford had accepted a plea deal at the time and imposed a sentence of five years on probation. He ordered her to make nearly $140,000 in restitution. It covered $81,253 for the Department for Children and Families Child Development Division, $34,710 for DCF’s Economic Services Division and $23,434 for the Vermont Health Access Department, records show.
Stocker was still on probation when she submitted several applications to the Vermont Federal Credit Union in April and May 2020 for a PPP loan for Twelve Acres LLC, which she said she was the half owner, according to her signed plea agreement. She filed another application for Twelve Acres in February 2021 in which she said she was the full owner. Twelve Acres has been involved in a couple of businesses, including a hair salon and spa, state records show.
Under the new case involving the PPP loans, Stocker could receive up to 30 years in prison, followed by up to 5 years of supervised release and pay up to a $1 million fine. Stocker also faces up to 5 years in prison for the probation violation.
In the 2018 fraud case, both the prosecution and the defense had recommended placing Stocker on probation for five years because it was her first known criminal conviction, records show. The federal sentencing guidelines, which are advisory, had proposed a sentence between 10 and 16 months in prison.
This is at least the third prosecution filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Vermont concerning fraud involving PPP funds unlawfully obtained by individuals for their businesses. At least two other investigations are pending.
U.S. Attorney Nikolas “Kolo” Kerest has said prosecuting pandemic-related fraud is a priority for his office and the Department of Justice.